Chapter 2: That Shapeshifter, In Charge

In truth, the “we” who would be preparing the banquet and the “us” showing hospitality was just Yoka. She gave the two troublemakers simple tasks to complete and kicked them out of the kitchen.

Kii, who was in charge of picking vegetables from the edible garden for a salad dish, grumbled, ‘Does Yoka think I’m dumb? There’s a big pile of already-plucked vegetables beside the stove. Also, telling me to “pick the vegetables carefully” is basically admitting she’s just trying to keep me out of the kitchen!’

Yuzuru, who was assigned the job of cleaning up the dusty guardhouse by the castle gates, was not listening at all. He was busy thinking about modifying a broom to sweep by itself. ‘I’m gonna surprise Yoka by cleaning up faster than she does!’ he declared.

Kii swung the basket given to her carelessly as she made her way to the gardens behind the kitchen. ‘Surprise Yoka, huh…’

With the two freeloaders busy making themselves useful, Yoka began the official preparations for the evening banquet. She handed a list of fresh ingredients she needed from town to Reika, tied up her sleeves with a sarashi1a length of white cloth used to wrap around the body and braced herself to clean the corridors of the whole castle all at once.

Reika was a teenage girl who had also survived the Karatsu Castle massacre. She returned to the castle on her own after Yin became daimyo and pleaded to be allowed to serve the young mistress.

At that time, Yin only trusted Yoka and allowed no one else inside the castle where her parents died. But Reika had grown up in Karatsu Castle. Her mother was a washerwoman and she married one of the castle gardeners. Yin knew them both.

She had played with Reika when she was younger and followed her around like a little tail. She even called her “onee-san”2older sister because the washerwoman’s daughter was four years older than her.

Yin had only disappeared for two years, but in that time, Reika became mute and destitute.

It wasn’t because the young mistress pitied Reika that she relented and let her live with Yoka in the servants’ courtyard. Yin herself was forced to walk through the long halls of hell during those same years.

The little girl who once called Reika “onee-san” was gone.

No, Yin ordered Yoka to give her a place to stay and work to do because Reika was the her who did not meet Yoka.

Reika was her reminder to live only for revenge.

Yoka smiled to herself. Her light-grey eyes flashed and her legs morphed into the strong hind legs of a white tiger.

The maid laid the wet towel on the ground and pushed it across the wooden surface, zipping across the corridor at a speed impossible for humans.

In two hours, Yoka wiped every corridor in Shin-Karatsu Castle, swept leaves off the steps and tidied up Moon Gazing Hall where the banquet would be held.

She returned to the kitchen and was blasted in the face with foul-smelling smoke. Kii was stirring a large iron pot with a pair of saibashi3cooking chopsticks, purple substance sloshing down the sides as she tossed more spinach inside.

Yoka was speechless for a long time before she slammed the door to the kitchen against the frame to get the cook’s attention.

‘Hm?’ The troublemaker turned her head at the sound and said, ‘Yoka-san! I noticed you haven’t started making konbu dashi4dried kelp broth, so I did it for you.’

The bright-eyed woman even dared to smile at Yoka, clearly expecting to be praised.

Yoka inhaled a deep breath and replied with a polite smile on her face, ‘Oh, then why is the dashi purple?’

Kii scratched the side of her face and laughed awkwardly. ‘I added plenty of other things so the dashi will be more flavourful and nutritious!’

‘Thanks,’ Yoka said drily and held her hand out for the saibashi. ‘Why don’t you go back to your room and don’t do anything else until tomorrow.’

Kii grudgingly handed it over and shuffled away from the stove. Then, she turned and offered, ’I can go get more vegetables from the edible garden for–’

‘No need,’ Yoka reiterated, the polite smile twitching on her face.

The cook shrank away and bolted.

The maid sighed and began to clean up the poisonous dashi.

When she finished scrubbing away all traces of the purple substance in the kitchen, a bell tinkled. Yoka looked up at the wall of bells, a foreign system Yin had Yoka rig up so the servants could answer her summons more quickly.

The bell that rang came from Yin’s study.

Yoka untied the sarashi holding back her sleeves and smoothed them down before going upstairs.

’Ojou-sama5polite form of young lady?’ Yoka called as she slid the door to the study open.

Yin looked up from the papers in front of her and pointed at the inkstone with her brush. ‘Help me grind some more ink.’

‘…’

The maid’s usual polite smile appeared on her face and she walked over to the young mistress at a serene pace. She deftly took the sumi ink stick6ink made from soot of burnt lamp oil or pinewood, animal glue and perfume lying just beside the inkstone and ground the ink.

‘Anything else, Ojou-sama?’

Yin blinked her large black eyes at her. ‘What’s for lunch?’

‘Yudofu, shrimp tempura and hijiki7a type of seaweed carrot salad with miso soup and rice,’ Yoka replied.

‘Don’t want.’ Yin dipped her brush in the freshly ground ink and began to write on the blank page in front of her.

Yoka frowned. ’You’ve already had kitsune udon for breakfast.’

‘I want it again,’ the young mistress said in a petulant voice.

‘It’s disrespectful for the servants of the castle to serve Ojou-sama the same food for two meals in a row,’ Yoka reasoned.

Yin laughed. ‘It’s not like you’re a real maid anyway, right? Yoka, you swore an oath to obey my every command.’

‘Yes, Ojou-sama,’ Yoka replied, a hint of a real smile shining in her light-grey eyes, ‘I did. But it was you who ordered me to be your personal maid.’

She leaned over to speak into Yin’s ear, ‘And as your maid, I must feed you well.’

Yin pushed her insolent maid away and scowled. ‘I won’t eat!’

‘My tofu and tempura making skills have improved. Ojou-sama, are you really not going to take a look at how I’m doing?’ Yoka gave Yin a forlorn expression.

The young mistress paused for a moment, then lifted her chin. ‘Fine. Let’s see if you’re any closer to the standards of a real maid.’

Yoka bowed and turned away quickly to hide the amused smile blooming on her face.

As easy to coax as a child.

Yoka boiled a fresh pot of konbu dashi for the evening banquet before taking the young mistress’s meal upstairs on a lacquered tray.

Yin eyed the array of dishes in front of her with empty eyes. Her small white hand reached out to hold the chopsticks and pulled a few bites of each dish into her mouth.

The yudofu was topped with a citrus ponzu dressing which tickled her tastebuds. The shrimp tempura was hot and crunchy with a delicious, chewy filling. Yin eyed the hijiki carrot salad for a long time before tentatively tasting a tiny morsel of carrot.

Immediately, she said, ‘Not cooked properly.’

And refused to eat it.

Yoka sat beside the young mistress until she stopped eating, then stood up to remove the tray with a half bowl of rice, half touched yudofu and the uneaten hijiki carrot salad still in it. Only the tempura had been completely gobbled up.

‘Do that later,’ Yin said. Yoka paused. ‘I want to take a nap. Carry me upstairs.’

The maid put down the tray. ‘Alright, Ojou-sama. Let’s go.’

Yoka helped Yin out of her outer kimono and untied her hair so she could sleep comfortably. The young mistress snugged under the silk blanket but poked her head out again to stare at her maid. ‘Don’t go anyway. Stay here until I wake up.’

‘Do you want me to sing you a lullaby too?’ Yoka asked with amusement.

‘Damn shapeshifter,’ the young mistress cursed. ‘Shut up.’

Yoka laid her slender, work-worn hand on Yin’s head and patted gently. ‘Don’t worry. Our oath was made with my blood, so I will definitely keep it. My power is at your disposal.’

‘I know,’ she retorted. Her long eyelashes fluttered close. ‘You must always protect me.’

‘Understood, Ojou-sama.’

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